Some of my earliest Jewish memories are memories of the High Holy Days. I sat next to my father and heard words I didn’t understand, whether in English or Hebrew. He wrapped his tallit around me and I ran the fringes through my fingers, or braided them when I got a little older. On Yom Kippur we stayed all day, from morning through Neilah. I sat with my family, except during Yizkor, when my siblings and I were banished to the lobby with a book, lest we call down the evil eye. At the end of Neilah, there was always a “candy man” around to slip us a butterscotch to break the fast, for being so good. I find such comfort and connection in the memory of those days, of being part of my family and my community, even if I didn’t always understand the nuances of what was happening.
The long prayers of the High Holy Days can be a lot for young people, and even for ourselves. Here are some other ways you can learn about and interact with these days of awe and forgiveness as a family in advance of and during the holidays.
If your family likes cooking, eating, or puns, Rosh Hashanah has got options for you far beyond apples and honey, or baking a round challah. (Though both are delicious and fun to do.)
Sephardic Jews traditionally eat a variety of other fruits and vegetables, known as simanim, or signs, each accompanied by a wish for the new year that is a play on the name of the particular food. The Hebrew word for beets, selek, is a form of the word lisalek, to banish. In olden times, Jews prayed that their enemies would be physically banished. But if we play with the English spelling of the word, maybe eating beets will help us find our own inner beat, or perhaps inspire us to beat a path to justice. Another traditional siman is the head of a fish (you may prefer to substitute a head of cabbage or lettuce, or some Swedish fish), symbolizing our hope that we are more like a head than a tail of an animal — charging forward rather than lagging behind. Our more modern sensibilities might point us toward hoping for good leaders in our communities, or confidence in our own leadership abilities.
Try adding some new items to your Rosh Hashanah table and creating some punny new blessings of your own. Here are a few ideas to get you started
- May we have many RAISINS to celebrate in the new year.
- Let it be a PEASful year.
- LETTUCE be successful at work and earn a higher CELERY.
- May our PEARants and kids and siblings be healthy.
Yom Kippur Break Fast is another opportunity for culinary meaning and exploring the broad possibilities of Jewish tradition. From Lithuania to Iraq to Syria to Greece, Jews have put their tradition into the best bite of food of the year. Try something new!
Through song: A little background music is a wonderful way to get ready for the holidays, and many contemporary Jewish artists have released songs for the high holidays. Some can be found on this Spotify playlist from PJ library, which is very family and young child friendly. They contain a lot of joy, and a lot of facts about the holidays to teach the youngest members of our families, and refresh our knowledge, too. More traditionally minded? On apple music, you can listen to an extensive collection of liturgical music of the Reform movement. Hearing some of this music in advance can help people prepare for the service as they are more familiar with what they will hear. It can also be a key for being engaged during the service- how many tunes did we already know? How many do we know different versions of? Which ones do we like best?
Through story: We are blessed with an abundance of books that teach and celebrate many aspects of the holidays and provide a springboard for discussion of complicated issues. Here are some favorites, though there are many others.
Talia and the Rude Vegetables, and Talia and the Very Yum Kippur, by Linda Elovitz Marshall. – These entertaining books turn a child’s misunderstanding of what she hears into a jumping off point to explain the purpose of the holidays, and show kindness along the way.
By Jacqueline Jules
This Yom Kippur story revolves around a bird named the Ziz, who makes a big mistake and then can’t figure out how to get forgiveness for it. He discovers that the hardest words to say are “I’m sorry.” It’s actually a great lesson for all of us, but especially for kids who are starting to discover that there are consequences to their actions.
Gershon’s Monster, by Eric A. Kimmel
Instead of dealing with his mistakes, Gershon the baker sweeps them into the cellar. In this slightly frightening but deeply engaging retelling of a Hasidic legend, Gershon eventually discovers a better way of living.
The High Holy Days are an amazing time to help children engage in self reflective conversations, and to engage in refocusing conversations as a family. Some prompts to start with include
- The personal – What have I done that I am proud of? How do I want to grow? What kind of person do I want to be by the end of the year?
- The familial – How have we been kind to each other in the last year? How might we have been disrespectful or dismissive? How can we be a stronger family in the year ahead?
- The educational – What have we learned in the past year? What do we want to learn in the year ahead? Do we want to pick up a skill? A hobby? A new vocabulary word a day?
- The communal – How have we contributed to our communities? How have we supported people who need our help? What do we want to do this year to make the world better?
I hope these ideas inspire you to make the High Holy Days of 5783 a time of warm memories and deep connections that will nourish and sustain you now and in many years ahead.
Shanah Tovah u’metukah,